Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu: L. Devasagayam moved into the tsunami resettlement quarters in the village of Idinthakarai on the coast in the far south of Tamil Nadu after his neighbourhood further south was destroyed in the 2004 calamity. But now, he worries that the colourful home that he gratefully accepted after that disaster could be his undoing.

Gaining momentum: A protest demonstration in front of the Koodankulam nuclear power plant. Photo: R S Kumar/Mint

“Initially, we thought it was a project that would supply energy, so we didn’t mind living close to it," said Devasagayam, a 51-year-old fisherman. “But now we realize there is danger from radiation, and the nuclear waste (released into the sea) could make the fish toxic. Our livelihoods will be lost."

Such fears, which some authorities contend are baseless, have driven opposition to the 2,000MWe power project in Koodankulam ever since it was initiated in 1988. The protests gathered strength after a tsunami swamped the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, exposing citizens to alarming levels of radiation.

On Thursday, angered by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s insistence this week that work on the plant continue, and hardly mollified by chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s assurance that she would respect the sentiments of locals, more than 1,000 women, who gathered to block plant workers from going to work, planned to continue their protest through the night.

“We have some 13 points of opposition," said S.P. Udhayakumar, coordinator of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, which has been organizing the protests. “But mainly, this is not conducive to the right to life and livelihood of our people. All over the world, people are phasing out or cancelling nuclear power plants. We need electricity, we are a growing country, we are mindful of that, but electricity should be for the people. It cannot be at the cost of the people."

Around 127 villagers went on an indefinite fast last month demanding that work on the plant, which is scheduled to be commissioned in December, be halted immediately. Jayalalithaa has assured the people that her government would not support a project that threatened their safety. She wrote to Singh on 19 September, asking him to intervene. The chief minister’s promise to stop operations of the plant till the issue was resolved assuaged the villagers’ fear enough for them to give up their fast last month.

However, in a letter on Wednesday, Singh asked Jayalalithaa to support the project, writing, “in case the prospects of availability of this power are suddenly withdrawn, this would impact on the state’s development and industrialization plans."

“The government will not compromise on safety in pursuit of our nuclear energy programme, be it in terms of technology, regulation, skilled manpower or emergency preparedness," Singh wrote. The Prime Minister stressed that Tamil Nadu is industrializing quickly and would benefit from the 925MWe of power that would be allocated to the power-starved state out of the 2,000MWe the plant would produce.

The villagers, whose representatives met the Prime Minister last week, were disappointed with his response, and on Thursday, 106 of them were on the fifth day of another hunger strike outside the St. Lourdes Church in the village of Idinthakarai.

At the protest in Koodankulam, the women, some barefoot, some carrying babies, shifted to makeshift pandals as the sun beat down mercilessly, but their voices lost none of their passion as they followed a leader to call out slogans such as, “We will fight, we will fight, we will fight till they end."

“They say there’s no danger from this," said M. Saraswathi, a beedi factory worker from Koodankulam. “But, we have seen what happened in Japan on TV and in the papers. What do we believe? We are ordinary people. We don’t even need this power," she said.

L. Fatima, a resident of Idinthakarai, claimed fishermen were too intimidated by armed guards at the power plant to go fishing in the best fishing waters that lay close to the plant. “Even if we do catch fish, who will buy our catch?" she asked, saying she worried that nuclear waste would destroy the waters.

Some of these fears are unfounded, according to experts. “These protests are totally unjustified, but I would not blame them," said J.K. Sinha, member of the Nuclear Disaster Management Agency. “It appears that they are not aware of all the precautions and arrangements that are already in place and are further being strengthened." He said that educating the people on the safety measures would help the protests die down.

Others dispute this. According to Karuna Raina of Greenpeace India, which campaigns for green issues, a Russian audit of its own nuclear power plants had shown that their seismic strength—the ability to withstand earthquakes—had to be reevaluated, and that the integrity of its nuclear equipment was under review. Considering that the Koodankulam project is an Indo-Russian venture, there is a need to review it in light of the Russian reports, she said.

Sinha admitted that a recent survey of six districts where nuclear plants were located had revealed a lack of adequate medical care. “We have realized that there is a shortage of trained professionals to diagnose a patient," he said. “So a massive programme has been launched to train doctors."

India currently has 20 nuclear plants with an installed capacity of 4,760MW, and plans to increase the capacity to 20,000MW by 2020 and 50,000MW by 2030. But safety concerns have stalled many projects in the recent past.

The proposed 9,990MW Jaitapur nuclear plant in Maharashtra saw widespread protests from neighbouring communities, which rebelled against the setting up of six French reactors.

In Koodankulam, protesters have been emboldened by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s move in August to scrap the proposed nuclear plant in Haripur as a result of protests.

“If the state does not implement the cabinet resolution (passed by Jayalalithaa to halt work at the plant), we Tamil people will implement the resolution," Udhayakumar said.

Amritha Venketakrishnan in New Delhi and S. Bridget Leena in Chennai contributed to this story.